Over the course of our 13-year history, we’ve had dozens and dozens of clients. And I’ll be honest; some client relationships have been better than others. There’s no one to blame for that, of course. That’s often just the way human relationships work. Sometimes you click from the get-go. Other times… not so much.

But my experience has shown me that no matter how your relationship starts, whether you “click” or not, it can evolve into a lasting, productive partnership, so long as you keep a few things in mind.

Listen (No, really listen)

When I was younger (much younger, I promise!), I thought I knew everything. Of course, this bravado was really masking the insecurity that I didn’t know anything at all. But over time, I’ve been able to let go of that fear and really delight in the interesting things others have to share, particuarly when their thinking is so different from my own.

I know it probably sounds trite, but it’s true: Listening is vital to a good client relationship. When I talk with clients, I always start by listening without judgement. I listen not only for what they want, but how they want people to feel and what they want them to think about. That’s the first ingredient to arriving at a good result.

So what does listening look like? It means quieting your own impulses to impress, seek validation, and convince people you know what you’re doing. Remember, you’ve already got the job. So quiet your ego and open your ears.

Know Your Strengths

Now, you might be thinking, this guy sounds like a bit of a doormat. Well, maybe that’s true… sometimes. And it was even more true when I was first starting out in this business. I wanted to please everyone, because giving people what they want feels like a pathway to success.

With experience, though, comes the realization that collaboration requires confidence. I’ll tell you straight up that the stereotype about artists lacking confidence applies to me more than anyone I know.

For me, projecting confidence, even after years of doing this job, is still the most difficult part of the client relationship dynamic. To get over that, I remind myself that clients hire us for a reason: Because they felt our particular expertise could help them achieve their goals.

Recently, a client said to me, “We hired you because you are good at telling stories.” That stuck with me because I believe it, too. We’re never going to be the absolute best at every aspect of animation. This is an impossible fantasy. However, we can strive to be the best at storytelling, and to speak from authority on that skill. When a client comes to us with an expectation to “do something great,” we feel empowered to push the client and say, if you want to do something great, then you need to tell a good story.

I would ask, then, what is your gift? How can you honor and nurture it into something that feeds your confidence and authority?

Establish Boundaries

It’s important to know what you can do really well. But it’s also important to know, define, and be clear about what you can’t do to help set client expectations.

One way we do this at Planet Nutshell is by having a clearly defined revisions policy. We offer two rounds of revision on each phase of production. This helps us define expectations for the scope of the project, and it also helps us plan a detailed schedule. An open-ended revisions policy can lead to delays at best and at worst, it can cause resentment on both sides.

Having the policy is easy, but enforcing it? That’s always difficult. At times, though, it simply must be done, for the benefit of both parties. A client needs to know what is in and out of scope so you can both work together to stay on budget and hit deadlines.

Build Trust

Speaking of deadlines, take them seriously, and don’t miss deadlines you’ve committed to. Follow-through builds trust. And trust is the currency of enduring, long-term relationships. When you accept a job, you are promising to show up for the client and deliver.

And when you are planning your schedule, you can even plan for trust, and leave yourself time to exceed expectations before a deadline. I’ve said before that the most important part of a project is the last ten percent of effort and polish that elevates a project from good to great. Build time into your project schedule for the final push.

That’s just a start. Relationships are complicated, and there are million ways to nurture and maintain them. Let me know your thoughts in the comments.